No more knobs—today’s cars come with touch screens and flat panel buttons. It can be like having a computer in your console.
"Anything you can do on a laptop, you can pretty much do here. You have your navigation up top, you've got your Twitter feed on the bottom, you can search the web even while you're driving,” said Jennifer Stockburger, Director of Operations for Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.
Stockburger was describing one type of car. But there are a lot of different vehicles out there competing to have the most cutting-edge technology built right in. In the industry, these systems are known as “infotainment.”
We teamed up with Consumer Reports to find out just how distracting these in-car infotainment systems can be. The product rating organization factors the complexity of controls into its car ratings. We tested four cars on Consumer Reports’ test track, each with three simple tasks: change the radio station, change the climate mode and adjust fan speed.
The first car we tested was a 2014 Subaru Forester. It’s rated highly by Consumer Reports.
"It's a very traditional radio,” said Consumer Reports Automotive Data Analyst Mike Leung.
On the track, I did well with the Subaru and completed all three tasks on my first try. I only took my eyes off of the road for one second at a time.
Next up was a Dodge Dart equipped with Chrysler's UConnect system. It has both a touch screen and standard knobs, and rates well with Consumer Reports. On the track the tasks took a little more concentration. Still, I tuned the radio and turned up the air pretty easily, though I took my eyes off of the road for up to two seconds this time. Stockburger later showed me how much ground I covered in just those few moments.
“At 50 mph in two seconds, you’re covering about 150 feet,” she said, “Obviously, people are following a lot closer than that and the data says in those same two seconds you've doubled your risk of a crash.”
We also tried out the more complex systems in the Lincoln MKZ and Cadillac XTS. Both offer a lot of features but the controls score poorly with Consumer Reports
“Some of these systems, it doesn't matter how long you've owned the car. There's nothing to familiarize yourself with other than the area of the touch screen you're going to approach. But you will still need to look and take your hand off the wheel,” said Stockburger.
I had a tougher time with Lincoln's MyLincoln Touch system, because navigating the sleek display and touchscreen took time and attention. It took a couple runs through the course before I could even change the radio station.
The Cadillac XTS with the Cadillac CUE system was the most complex.
I took my eyes off of the road more times with this system, and for longer--up to four seconds at one point.
We showed our test track video to John Ivan, an accident prediction expert at UConn.
“Is it surprising you how much I'm looking away?” I asked him.
“Yea, you're looking away quite a bit,” answered Ivan.
Ivan explained that touchscreens only give visual feedback, unlike knobs which you can feel for. And he worries that's actually making driving more complicated.
"Making the driving task easier and less taxing is good,” he said, “and if the technology is not doing that than I have to question the value of that for use by the driver."
“It doesn't really have to be you holding your cell phone or texting. Those are the things people are typically thinking of when they're thinking distraction. It can actually be the vehicle itself,” said Stockburger.
Granted, my test track experience wasn't real life. I was trying out these cars for the first time, and hadn't yet gotten used to the controls. So we enlisted the help of our Troubleshooters’ videographer, Daryl Vallez. We mounted cameras in his 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan with touchscreen controls, and recorded his driving as he ran errands with his kids in the back seat.
Daryl didn't think the van he'd driven for two years was distracting, but as he used the touch screen to do routine things, he took his eyes off the road more than thirty times in a ten minute drive. Often, he was looking away from the road for up to two seconds at a time.
"Yea it surprised me a little bit. I try not to do it while I'm actually on the road,” said Daryl.
He explained that despite being familiar with the controls, he still has to take his eyes off the road for some features.
“It worries me at times. I usually try to do it in the parking lot before I get on the road but there's times when they'll say, ‘hey I'm hot,’ and I have to turn on the AC for them,” Daryl said.
There are alternatives: all of the infotainment systems we tested offer voice activated technology so you can stay hands free.
In a statement to NBC Connecticut, Ford (the parent company of Lincoln) said,
We believe driver distraction is a very important issue. We encourage the use of hands-free voice-activated technology, such as our own SYNC service offering to help drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Drivers experience many different types of distraction on a daily basis, such as reading maps and directions, having conversations and listening to music when they drive. Research shows that, when a driver’s eyes are away from the road for an extended period – such as when texting – the risk of an accident increases substantially. That is why both our Ford and Lincoln brands support a ban on drivers using hand-held devices.
And Cadillac gave us a lot of information on its CUE system. The company said safety is a top priority when it develops new technology:
• Cadillac CUE is an integrated user experience for intuitive control and connectivity.
• The single most troubling behavior that all of us see too often on the road today is a driver fiddling with the smartphone while driving. Step 1 for Cadillac CUE is to put the phone away! We provide a secured, covered storage bin designed to house the driver's phone - so that hands are on the wheel and eyes are on the road.
• We know that people greatly value the capability of their mobile device - it's a nearly universal requirement. CUE takes the key information and capability from the phone and channels it through the car.
• Contact lists, phone calls, music, navigation destinations, etc can all be accessed by natural voice commands and by steering wheel controls - so the phone stays hidden. "I'd like to listen to 33," "Call Mom," "I'd like to go to Main St and Elm," "Play Taylor Swift" - these are examples of the kinds of voice commands.
• CUE uses technologies proven on the world's best mobile devices and brings them into the car - so that users can apply the same commands, gestures and controls they love about their favorite mobile device. The touchscreen operates much like today's best smartphones and tablets.
• A fundamental of CUE: We enable the driver to store "favorites" beyond just radio presets. That is expanded to include all sorts of other content for quickest use. You can store common phone numbers, digital music playlists, navigation destinations, etc -- and access them in 1 touch just like the old radio preset buttons. The "favorites" appear at the bottom of the screen and dozens of them are available.
• The most driver distraction occurs in cars with without connectivity or "infotainment" features! These are the cars on the road in which you're more likely to see drivers with their hands and attention on the phone.
• We have technologies such as Head-Up Display (projects key info onto the windshield), Natural Voice (world's most advanced "natural language recognition software" enabling best-ever voice control,) capacitive touch (same tech used on iPhone, Droid and iPad screens) that support intuitive control.
• An important aspect is reducing the number of buttons in the car's center console. As new features have come into cars, you've seen a big increase in buttons - - some cars today have as many as 25 to 30 buttons in the "center stack" area, away from the steering wheel and windshield. We have reduced "button count" by more than half.
• We've also removed visual elements that compete for the driver's attention. A unique technology called the Safety Alert Seat provides a "buzz" or vibrating pulse to the driver's seat cushion to alert them if they've strayed out of their lane, or when an obstacle or potential collision is nearby the car. This replaces many visual warning lights or beeps that drivers sometimes ignore, and helps keep driver's eyes on the road ahead.
• The area of User Experience and intuitive smartphone connectivity is fairly new in cars. Many companies are getting into this space. No question that opinions vary on how best to deliver the connectivity drivers demand.
• Cadillac CUE and the XTS have won mobile technology awards from AOL, Popular Mechanics and Connected World Magazine
Finally, Toyota said it’s committed to preventing all kinds of driver distraction:
At Toyota, we are committed not just to helping protect drivers when they’re in a crash, but to helping prevent crashes from happening in the first place. That is why we have made reducing driver distraction one of our top concerns and are doing our part to study and help prevent distracted driver-related incidents. For more than 30 years, Toyota has had strict internal design guidelines in place to help drivers stay focused on the road. When designing our vehicles, all driver interfaces are thoroughly checked for distraction potential to help ensure driver safety. In addition, Toyota conducts significant research and partners with the auto industry to help drive the development of new technologies that can help reduce distractions and improve safety.
All three companies said they focus a lot of their energy on cutting down on driver distraction. Both Ford and Cadillac said voice technology helps reduce the risk drivers will be tempted to use their phones.
Stockburger thinks cars will continue to get complicated, so consumers have to take steps to really learn the controls and commands before getting on the road.
"You can't take it for granted. You're going to have to learn your car,” she said.